Making the ask


I’m quite a reserved person and I also like to be helpful, so when people ask me to give a keynote or a talk, I usually say yes, particularly online. Also, when you’re from a not particularly privileged background you tend to be grateful for stuff rather than demanding. I still expect someone to tell me they’ve made a mistake in appointing me professor, and in fact I should be working in a supermarket (no disrespect to supermarket workers, I was one for years).

All of this means that I tend not to ask for anything. If I can do the talk, then I’ll do it. But since Covid-19 hit I’ve done over 20 webinars, largely for free, and I’ve started to realise that I’m not making the best use of these offers. I don’t mean to maximise return for myself (although, contributions to the vinyl collection are always welcome), but to use what little position or influence I have for something else. For example, Maha Bali, who is much smarter than I, asked for her OLC keynote to be livestreamed. I’ve just waived a fee for a talk at the Irish Universities EDTL event next week, instead asking them to donate to Black Lives Matter UK. Others have spoken for free but in exchange for places for free places (particularly in online events) for students.

This post is partly to prompt others like myself who’s instinct is to be helpful but aren’t really be thoughtful enough. I need to get better at making the ask. I would add, this is distinct from people who make a living from keynotes, you should definitely pay them and not offer payment in kind like this – it’s for those small, free, low budget talks that many academics give to each other. Indeed, waiving your fee so they can pay someone else might be a good use too. But also I wanted to sound out any other ideas for what might be in such an ask if money or places weren’t available, or that might be more useful. Any suggestions?


  • Cath B

    I think that’s a really good point for those of us elsewhere doing assorted talks too, Martin – asking for a donation to something or similar.
    One person has offered such a donation in exchange for something I’ve happily done for nothing elsewhere and it made me think.

  • Dominic Newbould

    In 2018, I wrote to the author Mark Haddon (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) and asked him to contribute to the new MK Lit Fest. I was anxious that his fee might be vast, and waited with some trepidation for his response. When it came I was delighted. He not only waived his fee, but insisted that the standard fee we were offering should be used in some way to enable an under-recognised group to feature in the literary festival, which I was happy to do. He came and gave a wonderful interview which was the highlight of the festival.
    However, on Saturday, I’m giving up my day to visit a school in Hanoi and judge their public speaking contest. No fee offered. No problem.

  • Maha Bali

    Love this post and this thought, Martin. Looks like you are already doing this! I’m flattered by your mentioning what I did in OLC… I must be doing something right!

  • Catherine Cronin

    Hi Martin – thanks for writing this post. I agree that it’s important to make a distinction between speakers whose livelihood relies on getting paid for speaking engagements and those of us who have paid work already. If it is an HEI, I’ve often asked if if any fee could contribute to a research or travel account for the benefit of a PhD student or member of part-time staff, e.g. to participate in conferences. Obviously that was in the ‘old world’… In making asks like this, there’s often some pushback, it may not the usual path for such money. But it’s never been refused in the end.

    Thanks for what you do.

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